Reading the collection of essays that makes up Mexican author Gabriel Zaid's The Secret of Fame, I was reminded of an image conjured up a generation ago by John Kenneth Galbraith: the squirrel wheel. Galbraith used the image--one that most of us today would refer to as a "hamster wheel"--to describe the relationship between consumption and marketing. Marketers persuade us that we need to consume the commodities they're pushing, and our consumption of them encourages the marketers to push them even more strongly. And the wheel goes round faster and faster, creating the illusion of movement but actually getting nowhere.
Something like this goes on in the literary world today, says Zaid. To keep afloat, the publishing industry pumps out more and more books to fewer and fewer readers and focuses more attention on marketing its wares than in judiciously appraising raw manuscripts. As a consequence, publicity becomes more important than poetry; hobnobbing with authors is more desirable than reading them; and getting reviewed--even if the reviews are bad--is the barometer of success. As the old saying goes, even bad publicity is publicity.
All this puts the author in a precarious position. Most authors are already hungry for public recognition. They think they have something to say, and they want to be read. Fair enough. But the intense pressure on authors today to become celebrities, and to use that celebrity status as the hook for selling books to a celebrity-hungry public--is mutating normal authorial ambition into something darker and less savory. Authors pursue celebrity, celebrity (not artistic skill) clinches authorship. The squirrel wheel.
Zaid's book is an insightful and sometimes funny exploration of the way in which literary fame plays itself out in our contemporary culture. (One of my favorite stories is one he tells about Carlos Lohle. It seems that a publishing firm which Lohle worked for once published a book that all the reviewers agreed was full of egregious mistakes. It turns out that no one in the entire firm had actually read the manuscript before publishing it. Who had time? Everyone was too busy trying to fill the new list quota.) There are also wonderful reflections on the history of the footnote, the popularity and pretentiousness of quotes (quotations are "points to be accumulated for the benefit of the quoter and the person quoted"), and the publish-or-perish culture of academia (talk about your squirrel wheels!).
The essays are sometimes repetitious, and a handful of them could easily have been culled out. Some of the book's looseness probably comes from the fact that the essays were all occasional pieces in the Mexican journal "Letras Libras." But the book is well worth a bit of cherry-picking. When read alongside Zaid's earlier and excellent So Many Books, it's a good window into the modern world of literary (and publishing) pretensions.